The Netherlands Forensic Institute (Nederlands Forensisch Instituut, NFI) has launched a unique pilot with six alumni from the University of Amsterdam’s Forensic Science programme. Through a customised induction programme, the recent graduates are quickly trained as ‘conceptbevoegd DNA-deskundigen’ (draft-qualified DNA experts). The idea behind the pilot is that the alumni will write draft reports in investigations where the police have examined the evidence themselves. The six of them take as much work as possible off the hands of DNA experts. At the same time, the police are able to submit more trace evidence this year.
The six alumni started the training programme at the NFI in October 2018 and recently took a midterm test. The accelerated training programme is possible due to the knowledge of forensic science that the young colleagues already acquired during their Master’s programme. Moreover, they focus on a limited part of the work. The pilot forms part of a number of measures that the NFI is employing in order to increase the capacity for carrying out forensic DNA testing. The demand for DNA testing in criminal cases is great, as it can play a key role in the search for the perpetrator of a crime. As a result of this, the DNA experts of the NFI are under intense pressure. Innovative solutions are required in order to be able to deliver the reports on time in spite of the great demand and limited capacity.
The pilot for accelerated training of young forensic experts is a great example of that. Former UvA students Ingrid Jense, Sophie Smit and Lydia van de Hee, among others, have have grasped this opportunity with both hands. 'In the past months, we have had a lot of practice in writing reports in investigations where the police have taken samples from clothes or objects themselves. The lab employees subsequently determine a DNA profile on the basis of those samples. We interpret those and compare them with the profiles within the case or with the DNA databank for criminal cases and we write a draft report from that. In this way, we ease the burden on DNA experts and we can reduce the delivery times and handle more cases', explains Ingrid Jense.
Experienced DNA experts from the NFI normally write the reports. A second expert ‘shadows’ the findings of his or her colleague. The six graduates that have completed the training programme write the reports, but do not sign them. An expert authorised to sign, who has shadowed the report, does that. During the training programme, the draft reports of the alumni are shadowed by two people. That takes more time, but is necessary in order to guarantee the quality of the reports.
Expanding knowledge was the main item on the agenda during the first phase of the pilot. Sophie Smit: “During our Master’s programme, we had already studied statistics a lot. We had a lot of additional courses at the NFI, such as ‘NFI reporting’ and ‘quality assurance’. Furthermore, the main focus was on practice writing reports. Her colleague Lydia van de Hee adds: 'Within our department, you have various research directions. For example, Y chromosome DNA testing and DNA family relationship testing. We also received interesting presentations about those things, so that we know about everything that’s going on in our department. In that way, we have learned the ropes quickly.'
In the beginning, the prospective DNA experts practised simple reporting using closed cases where they didn’t know the outcome. 'We discussed each person’s interpretation of the DNA profile together,' tells Van de Hee. “You learn a lot about each other by discussing that.' After the simple cases, the six of them set to work on more complex reports and current cases.
During their Master’s programme, the former students had already been introduced to the prerequisite DNA profiles. Among other people, Prof. Ate Kloosterman, retired DNA expert and still affiliated with the NFI during this pilot, had taught them at the UvA. “We saw the perfect profiles, the ideal situation”, they remember. 'We came across many complex DNA profiles in practice. We fell short sometimes. Step by step, we learned how to interpret a DNA profile properly.'
DNA expert Laurens Grol provided the students with intensive guidance. He particularly emphasises the importance of putting in the hours to gain experience. 'It is important that that see many different DNA profiles and continue doing a lot of cases.' DNA experts Bas Kokshoorn and Arnoud Kal were also closely involved in the pilot. The fact that their doors, as well as those of all the other experts in the department, were always open to the students was an enormous help. 'It is fine that everyone is so open. We were allowed to ask any question. A pleasant atmosphere for learning, 'according to Sophie Smit.
One critical note about the pilot is that the experts sometimes had to ‘fight’ for cases during the training programme in order to be able to write. That is also because they are able to polish off a lot of cases with the six of them and learned the ropes quicker than expected. However, Laurens Grol states that the police are aware of the increased capacity at the NFI. That means that more trace evidence will come to the institute in the coming time.
At the end of January, the draft-qualified experts employed the knowledge gained from the past months during their test. It concerned the writing of a report in a real-life, although anonymised, drugs case in which samples were taken from some gloves. 'It was a tricky assignment', according to Van de Hee. 'The 12 DNA profiles were complex and there were four suspects to compare them with. What do I see? What can I do with that? I examined that critically for each step. '
Four of the six students already passed their test after four months. The other two alumni will complete it within the proposed time period of six months. Laurens Grol confims that the test was complex. “That was a conscious choice. We are regularly confronted with those types of cases. It is important that they have a proper command of the material.” Moreover, he is able to learn a lot about the person’s way of thinking. DNA profiles can be interpreted in various ways.
The importance of the test is threefold. Passing the test proves that the experts are draft-qualified. That is important for delivering a report that meets all quality requirements and for the Dutch Accreditation Council. After passing the test, the second shadow doesn’t have to check the reports any more. That saves the experts authorised to sign a lot of extra shadowing work. Finally, it is the intention that things are learned from the test. 'The supervisors will devote extra attention in the coming two months to the parts that someone does not yet have a sufficient command of.'
This pilot offers the alumni the opportunity to snare their dream job at the NFI. At the same time, they help to speed up the delivery of reports at the NFI. In this way, it’s possible to kill two birds with one stone. The six alumni will be given a one-year contract. \'Our study comes to life here. You pass by the labs every day and you can see how colleagues examine evidence.'And', they continue grinning 'Our former lecturers are now colleagues.'